Online matchmaking is finally catering to Arabs and Muslims around the world. Gihan Shahine logs on to rate its success
It never occurred to Zeinab that happiness was just a finger-click away. She had just turned 28 and her parents were fretting about her single status. It wasn't that suitors were scarce, simply that arranged marriages were not working out. "The chemistry," Zeinab said, was missing.
"I was not ready to marry anyone I felt half- hearted about just to fit in," shared Zeinab. "I wanted a real soul-mate."
She decided, instead, to venture onto the Net in search of Mr Perfect.
"My parents were sceptical and worried but they also knew I would never do anything wrong or irrational," she recalls. "One good thing about Net marriage services is that they allow you to choose characteristics you want in a prospective spouse from a wide range of options. Which is good for picky people like me."
It was not all smooth surfing though -- many men use the Web to find girlfriends, rather than potential spouses, or else are just fooling around.
"Many turned out to be liars; many were already married with kids," she said. "Some were just seeking a girlfriend; and there were those holding back information about serious illness or disability."
After six months of failed attempts Zeinab logged onto the local version of global matchmaker. "Find your perfect match" sites -- catering solely to Egyptians.
She e-mailed the "man who looked perfectly eligible" and the following day received a response. Two months later they decided to meet.
"We liked each other at first sight," Zeinab says, smiling. "I was surprised he was more handsome than his photo and I admired his respectable attitude. I felt so comfortable and happy and he immediately contacted my parents to propose."
Today, two years and a baby girl later, Zeinab insists Khaled "is the right person for her". And as a consequence she has made it her mission to help other singleton friends find their soul-mates.
It's simple, she says: "If you are mature enough and know how to use your mind then the Internet can help you find your match."
Online love is nothing new. But it is only recently, however, that sites have started to target Arab and Muslim communities, catering specifically to their needs.
THE MARRIAGE PROBLEM:
In Egypt, many NGOs and computer centres providing matchmaking services have appeared on the scene, placing tantalising advertisements in newspapers and magazines. On the Internet dating and matchmaking services have proliferated, with many specialising in Muslim and Arab marriages, promising those "sick of hanging out in clubs and tired of waiting to find that special someone" that "soul-mates really exist".
These services have boomed to the extent that the stigma they once attracted is now almost negligible, especially among Muslim communities where dating is not religiously accepted. Today, the US-based www.zawaj.com, one of the perhaps most popular Muslim matrimonial sites, boasts 35,000 registered members, 5,500 active profiles and overall Web traffic of 2,800,000 page views per month and 160,000 unique monthly visitors. Launched in 2002, www.MuslimMatch.com has attracted 47,648 members and 1,500 first-time visitors.
The boom, however, has not been without its critics. It has given rise to controversial fatwas from Islamic scholars around the world. While some dwell on the hazards of chat, most-recently Al-Azhar's Mufti Ali Gomaa issued a religious edict "allowing" marriage through online and computer matrimonial services on condition that the girls' parents are kept informed.
One reason why more Egyptians are tapping into technology to access an alternative spouse pool is that marriage, as everybody seems to agree, is a problem, especially for the middle class. Official figures confirm this perception. According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), marriage contracts declined from 579,000 in 2001 to 513,000 in 2002 while divorce cases increased from 68,000 in 2001 to 70,000 in 2002. The percentage of those tying the knot dropped from 64.8 per cent to 61.2 per cent of all people at marriageable age in the period between 1986 and 1996, during which the latest CAPMAS national census (done every 10 years) was conducted. The CAPMAS census also showed that the number of unmarried people increased from 25.7 per cent to 27.8 per cent within the same period.
The reasons, for the most part, are unemployment and financial problems, skyrocketing prices and parental demands. There are difficulties finding an apartment and scraping together enough for a wedding and the bare necessities of life "a deux".
But cyber matchmaking could also be seen as symptomatic of a different social take on marriage. Whereas not so long ago young women would heartily adhere to the old Egyptian saying "the shadow of a man is better than that of a wall", today both young men and women take marriage more seriously -- or at least differently -- which has given a new spin on the traditional matchmaking process.
Many young women, already in paying jobs, are no longer interested only in financial support or in getting married to fit in. Today, according to sociologist Ali Fahmi, "both girls and boys seek a marriage based on love, personal fulfilment and mutual understanding." Which, Fahmi added "has become increasingly difficult in light of the already burgeoning financial crisis".
Tareq Mahmoud, a 35-year-old software team leader, remains undaunted after three years of failed attempts to find a match on almost all matrimonial Web sites. "It is all about being selective," Mahmoud said confidently. "I don't want to marry any woman. I could not find my match in my immediate circle, so I decided to widen my sphere by posting an ad on the Net. It's very difficult to find a real soul-mate, but if marriage does not add value to my life, then there is absolutely no need for it."
Egyptian-American Wael Abdel-Gawwad, the administrator of www.zawaj.com, told Al-Ahram Weekly by e-mail that "many people who use online matrimonial services have not had any luck with the usual methods of seeking a spouse." Which is why Abdel-Gawwad insists "online matrimonial sites represent a revolution in the way Muslims can meet future partners," helping them break their "own small circle of family and friends" and search "the entire world to find the one partner who is perfectly matched".
"You cannot keep on waiting for a miracle for that special someone to come flying into your life," said 22-year-old Heba Fadel, who met her husband, Ahmed, through a chat programme. "You cannot imitate the West and just meet someone in a bar/restaurant and start dating. You either opt for the khatba, which is stupid and superficial, or you end up opting for the last resort of Internet relationships, however risky they may be."
Heba, who is happily married with a baby girl, contends that meeting someone on the Internet engenders a deeper relationship than in organised marriages, which are based on physical looks. "If a girl gets an aaris (suitor) and she doesn't like his nose or his kersh (big tummy) or whatever, she will send him away without even knowing what his personality is like," Heba explained. "The Internet would take that physical attraction away, giving the couple a chance to fall in love before the bodies do. You get to know the person and the way he thinks, his dreams, ambitions and what he wants to do with his life. Eventually when you meet the guy, you don't mind if he's fat, lanky, too tall or too short. You just love him for who he is. He becomes perfect for you."
But the Internet has also proved a tortuous path for many -- a mysterious world ridden with dangers -- not least heartbreaks, broken marriages and, in some extreme cases, crime.
"Initially, you don't know if the other party is being honest about anything, whether it is his/her character, appearance, education, or past," Abdel-Gawwad said. "A person might have a serious disability and may conceal it as long as possible. A photograph could be old or doctored. Or he may really believe he is something special when in reality he is a jerk."
Yasmine, 23, ended up with a broken heart when her Turkish friend, with whom she fell in love on the Net, broke off the relationship.
"Initially, I was chatting for fun and it was he who developed it into an emotional relation and even discussed marriage with me," Yasmine recounts. "But when we met in Cairo it seems he did not like me at all and our online chemistry suddenly vanished. He has disappeared since the time we met, and when I asked him for an explanation he claimed he never intended to marry me in the first place. I was so hurt and regretted not having listened to my friends' repeated warnings."
Heba had similar experience on the Net before she met Ahmed. "The biggest mistake a person could do on the Internet is to discuss marriage before they even meet the person, as the Internet is like a mask, a screen, the good stuff is filtered through and the bad stuff isn't," Heba said. "You end up living in a Platonic love dream that makes you feel that life is sweet and everyone lives on clouds and feeds on pure fruits from each other hands. A person should also ask for a photo. Two people could have an amazing chemistry online but when they meet, the picture in their head for the physical appearance is wrong and leads to a failed relationship before it even starts."
Online chemistry convinced Mona (not her real name), but her marriage to an Egyptian chat friend, who was working in the Gulf, ended in divorce.
"It was a big mistake," Mona said with a sigh. "I simply found he was a completely different person than the one I met on the Net. He was a big liar."
In one case, online passion ended up with the murder of 29-year-old US resident Sherine Sabri at the hands of her chat pal Hani Zakariya, 30, in Cairo on 29 January. Divorced with a child, Sabri's online crush on Zakariya brought her all the way to Egypt, leaving her daughter behind. An increasingly jealous Zakariya told the police he lost his temper and killed Sabri after she insisted she wanted to visit her daughter in the US, where her ex-husband also lives.
Consultant psychiatrist Khalil Fadel warns that cyberspace usually provides "false electronic intimacy" and, more importantly perhaps, is a perfect venue for "pathological liars, who enjoy lying very much, and imagine they are heroes, creating their own illusory kingdoms on the Net."
"The Internet provides those who fear intimacy the chance to hide behind screens and in chat rooms and exchange the best of themselves with the other," Fadel explained. "Online communication helps those who are emotionally-deprived or are unable to establish relationships in life to get emotionally fulfilled through a fictitious love relationship."
Joseph Walther, an associate professor of communication, social psychology and information technology, agrees that Web communication can create illusory fulfilment, arguing that it is "nearly impossible for people to live up to such an artificially high, idealised range of expectations."
In a study entitled Cyberspace Couples Finding Romance Online Then Meeting for the First Time in Real Life, Andrea Baker, an associate professor of sociology at Ohio University, noted that cyber advantages "include a wider pool of people with common interests and the ability to get to know something about others before judging their compatibility based upon physical presentation".
In the study, conducted with a sample of 76 couples who met online, Baker found that people who meet online tend to move into serious relationships.
"In my study I found that people who meet online and fall in love tend to marry within a year to 18 months," he wrote.
TIPS FOR SUCCESS:
Fadel argues, however, that the Internet can help online couples get to know one another only when they are honest, balanced and normal. And he stresses that at some point in the relationship "eye-to-eye contact is essential".
Abdel-Gawwad has equally important tips for those interested in online matchmaking: take it slowly. Communicate anonymously, and give out your personal contact information only when you are ready. Ask for references, including family, friends, or the local imam. Call these people. Talk to them. Or, if your family is supporting your search, have one of your family members check the references. If possible, arrange a meeting between you, him, and both your families, or with your walli (for women).
"These precautions can neutralise any risk," Abdel-Gawwad said. "After all, once you've talked to his references and met his family, what's the difference where you initially found one another?"
"My final bit of advice for matrimonial advertisers is that as much as it is important to take it slow, it is equally important to open your heart," Abdel-Gawwad added. "The right person for you, the one that Allah has destined for you, is out there, but you will never meet him or her unless you are willing to share something of yourself. Be brave. Everyone deserves a shot at happiness. Don't look for the one who is perfect, but for the one who is right. So be bold and take a chance."